What Went Wrong?

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JB Fry

The avant-garde, experimental films of the late 1960s put their audience in the darkness of the theater with radical images and speculative subjects. The viewers were left to wonder “What am I watching,” “Why is this happening,” and ultimately “What went wrong?” Which is the same question that Blonde Cobra presents at the end of its duration. Naturally, we question the intentions of artists in this movement. Blonde Cobra flaunts its awareness of failure to unravel film and identity. It reminds us the world is not a spectacle easily observed but a reminder that we are cinema. We are no longer bought into the heteronormative conventions in the mainstream of Hollywood. Thus we begin to realize our position as spectator in relation to what is being viewed. In the “Introduction (to Flesh Cinema)” by Ara Osterweil, we are immersed into the ideas behind Ken Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra of embracing failure and queering the image in the corporeal turn of the avant-garde.

“Failing” is pivotal in the films of the American underground cinema. “Losing, forgetting, unmaking, un­doing, unbecoming, not knowing may offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” is what Judith Halberstam has manifested in the ‘queer art of failure.’ Osterweil introduces us to the platform in which Jack Smith performs for Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra. Described as “the worst film ever made” by critic David James, Blonde Cobra is the composite of Bob Fleischner’s parody films of Blonde Venus (1932) and Cobra Woman (1944) with the narration of a live radio. Jacobs deconstructs the fictional world that lives in cinema by taking away the image, playing the audio throughout the theater opposed to speakers behind the image. The blackout of the image, a persistent feature in the film, is the instance of what could’ve been a mistake. Rather its failures are key and used to queer cinema from heteronormative commerciality that is capitalism.

The social and cultural environment in which images like this emerged was in experimentation of music, visual arts, and performance. Artists continue to make radical film post the 1960s, and the spirit of social transgression that characterized early underground cinema lives on through works of more contemporary American filmmakers, such as Sadie Benning. She is an artist most well known for her Pixel Vision videos that give the viewer an inside look into her personal life and adolescent culture with a mix of music, extreme close up shots of her face and jumping narratives that highlight her suffering through, similar to a diary.

Living Inside explores the family dynamics and short moments of adolescent stream of consciousness. Benning faces rejection of her peers, feelings toward school and family and very irrelevant topics that break up the narrative such as “i got a pimple,” “my dog like dog food,” and “I know lots of people that like ham.” These fragments of personal thoughts are interrupted by cuts and the noise present from the analog medium of the Fischer-Price Pixel Vision she taped films on.

Questions:

How do Sadie Benning’s videos relate to the images seen in the American Avant-Garde of the 1960s? Do they fail?

Can you think of any forms of failure seen in contemporary media and images?

Even though the intentions of these films were to fail, fuck up, be ugly- are they bad? Can we get past taste to appreciate films like this?

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